Long before European contact, migratory American Indians lived along the Illinois River valley, hunting and gathering, moving on, and returning when the seasons were right.
Today, the Illinois River watershed draws thousands of visitors each year for canoeing, fishing and camping. It is also home to thriving agriculture and horticulture industries.
Dr. Brad Agnew, professor of history at Northeastern State University, presented the program at Tahlequah Friends of the Library’s Program Sandwiched In Thursday.
Agnew wrote a chapter for “The Illinois River Survey: A Visual Record,” published in 2011, and summarized his work during the program.
“The river carved out this region’s terrain, and over 350,000 people travel here each year for its scenic beauty, fishing, canoeing and camping,” said Agnew. “Often they return from year to year.”
Agnew said while the river basin is a favorite for photographers, no single image can record the Illinois River’s true beauty.
According to Agnew, the Illinois River valley was created by a melting glacier. Archaeologists have recorded proof that the area was first inhabited up to 7,500 years ago.
“As time passed, archaeologists found the Indians in the area became more sedentary, and set up farms and homesteads,” said Agnew. “Over time, their art grew more elaborate, depicting widespread commerce.”
French trappers and traders were most likely the first Europeans to travel to Northeast Oklahoma, and many familiar river names – Sallisaw, Verdigris, Grand and Illinois - came from the French, said Agnew.
“The Illinois River Valley was also ground zero for the Battle of Claremore Mound between the Cherokees and the Osage,” said Agnew.
The professor traced historical points along the Illinois, beginning at the river’s mouth near Gore. He spoke of Tahlonteeskee, chief of the Cherokees from 1809-1818, who was part of the Old Settler band of Cherokees who moved from the Southeast U.S. before the removal or Trail of Tears.
“Moving down, we remember Redbird Smith, and the Keetoowah stomp grounds,” said Agnew. “Later, the Cookson Hills became refuge for moonshiners and outlaws like Petty Boy Floyd and Bonnie and Clyde.”
The chapter also includes information about Park Hill, the stabbing of Elias Boudinot and Stand Watie burning Rose Cottage, Cherokee Chief John Ross’ home.
“On the other side of the Park Hill lies Baron Fork, which flows into the Illinois River and is a favorite of fishermen,” said Agnew.
Agnew talked about how the name “Baron Fork,” changed over time. Originally the tributary was called the Fork of the Illinois, but after a drought, was called “Barren Fork” by residents of the area.
Agnew moved on to the portion of the river that runs northeast of Tahlequah, talking about points of interest, including Goat’s Bluff, Flint Ridge and Lake Francis.
“The river reaches its most narrow point at Hog Eye, Ark.,” said Agnew. “There are portions near that community where the river runs dry.”
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